Mira lashed out with a stream of wind moving so fast that it shot the stone backwards. Alyr stretched his hand over his head and caught it as it flew by. “Good,” he said. “Now, two at once.”
He threw two at her, this time at different speeds. She only had a moment to calculate which would hit her first, to prioritize blocking that. Alyr had already shown her how to create a miniature tornado around her, but it was exhausting to do. The whole point of the exercise was to gain precision and control so that she could pick off incoming attacks without having to wrap herself in a cocoon of air moving fast enough to rip small trees out of the ground.
Her intuition told her that the one on her left was moving faster, but she had an idea. She’d gotten good enough to reliably stop one stone, but generating two blasts of wind in quick succession was still difficult to do. Making two at once might be easier.
Mira held up both hands and willed the vilraf heartstone to chain the air molecules in front of her to her will. Slipstreams of air jetted out of both hands and knocked one stone out of the air. The other sailed in unopposed, her blocking wind having completely missed it.
She tried to correct the slipstream, but that was essentially the same process as making a new one, and she was even slower from having successfully made two at once. The stone smacked into her arm and spun her a quarter turn. “God damn it,” she spat out. “That’s going to leave a bruise the size of a watermelon.”
With a scowl, she kicked the offending stone back toward Alyr. It wasn’t a strong enough kick to send it more than a few feet, but it rolled end over end across the room until it came to a rest at his feet. He held a hand out, and the stone shot upward into his waiting palm.
“Clever, trying to deflect both at the same time. It’s difficult to aim in two different directions at once though. Let’s take a few minutes to rest, then we’ll try again.”
Mira stomped over to the bench pushed up against the wall and flopped down. “Why the hell are we using rocks for this anyway?” she asked. “Something a bit softer would be better.”
“Because stone is my domain,” Alyr said, sitting down next to her. “I can control how fast they’re going. Anything else would just be me throwing things at you.”
“And I’m ok with that.”
“I’m not. You need to grow, and the best way to do that is to stretch the limits of your abilities. Pain is a good motivator keep you trying, even when you’re tired.”
Mira massaged the bruised muscle in her arm. The stones were about the size of baseballs, and she had no idea how fast Alyr was shooting them at her. She just knew it hurt like hell whenever she failed to block one. He wasn’t shy about targeting the same spot multiple times, for extra motivation, he’d said.
“We need to talk about your plans once you leave here,” Alyr said.
Mira looked over to see him staring at her. “Are you kicking me out?” she asked.
“Not yet. But you can’t stay here forever. You need to make some decisions, and soon.”
“My goal has always been to get back home. Jorath promised to send me back if I helped him.”
Alyr leaned forward, elbows on his legs, and laughed. “Jorath, huh? He’s a snake. We’ve done our best to document the abilities of every known powerful demon, including him. His powers let him pierce holes in reality and travel through the void between worlds. It’s fatal to humans, even human demon hunters.”
“You must be wrong,” Mira said. “He brought me here from Earth.”
“Maybe,” Alyr replied. “But I don’t think so. From what Maluk’s told me, you’ve been traveling by foot with that other demon, the one who calls herself Shy. If Jorath could move you quickly, I think he would have.”
Once he said it, Mira thought that Alyr was probably right. When they’d been in that city during the red moon, Jorath had said he needed Shodo to protect Mira. If he had been able to move her quickly, it would have made everything a lot easier.
“Maybe it takes something special to let him take a human through the void,” Mira said. “Something he couldn’t burn through whenever it was convenient.”
Alyr acknowledged the idea with a nod. “That’s certainly possible. If there was ever anyone who was hiding his capabilities, it’s Jorath. The man was bred for deceit and treachery. Still though, if ever there was a time for him to pull out the stops, it was when his sister attacked you.”
“So you think he’s been lying to me all along? That he never had any intention of sending me back?”
“If it suited his purpose,” Alyr said.
“Then I guess it’s back to my original plan. Find him, take his heartstone, and use it to find my own way home.”
“That’s one option. I told you that the Order is looking to reverse our condition, to have our bodies returned to human form. It’s a complicated process, and one we believe only you possess the ability to do. It would be an investment of time to teach you how to do this, but we’re willing to turn all our assets to help you with whatever you decide you want to do in return. If hunting down Jorath is that goal, we can help.”
“Do you know any other way for me to get back to Earth? I mean, there’s got to be a way, right? My ancestors were from this world, and they were banished to mine as humans.”
“Now that’s an idea,” Alyr mused. “I don’t personally know how it was done. I hadn’t been part of the family for a hundred years when that happened, but I’m sure it’s something we can look into.”
Mira had trouble reading Alyr. There was a sort of rigid inflexibility to his facial expressions that made it hard to get a glimpse into what he was thinking, and his voice was always level, calm. It had been reassuring at first, but as she’d regained her strength, she’d realized she had nothing to go on. The man was as hard to read as a rock, which probably wasn’t a coincidence.
Added to that his appearance as a teenager, and it was easy to find herself offbalance. He looked so close to a normal person that it was hard to think of him as a demon, but acted with so much maturity that at times he reminded her of her father. The disconnect between appearance and attitude threw her for a loop.
The consequence of all that was that she wanted to believe everything he said, and at the same time she was afraid to. He’d been upfront about his reasons for helping her, but those might not be his only motivations, if they were truthful at all. He was certainly the first and only demon she’d met who wasn’t happy with his current station in life. If Maluk or any of the other demons in the compound felt the same way as him, they hadn’t bothered to mention it.
“Well,” Alyr said, standing up. He held a hand out to Mira to help her to her feet. “Whatever you decide to do, you’ll need to be stronger. Let’s see how you do creating a wall of air quickly enough to block five stones at once.”
* * *
The infirmary wing of the compound, which was completely underground as far as Mira could tell, wasn’t a place of noise or high traffic. Because there were no doors though, there was always a quiet murmur of sound in the background. After awhile, she’d just tuned it out.
It took her a moment upon waking to realize why the quiet seemed wrong. She couldn’t hear anything at all, and after she figured that out, she realized the light was distorted too. It was like someone had put her inside a giant glass bubble and then dragged the glowing crystals that lit her room across its surface to smear them into long, diffused streaks.
“What the hell?” she mouthed, starting to sit up.
Something hit her across the chest and pressed her back down. A person came into view, cloaked and shrouded, his face masked and hands gloved. One arm was pressed against her chest, holding her down. The other hand lunged down to grab her by the throat and squeeze.
Mira felt strong fingers digging in around her windpipe and reached up with both hands to break her attacker’s grip. He didn’t loosen his grasp at all, no matter how hard she wrenched on his wrist. She opened her mouth to say something, but all that came out was a gasp of air.
The attacker stared down at her, silent and remorseless. The mask had no eye sockets, not even a slit for a nose. It was made out of some sort of hard material that had been smoothed into a blank slate that curved around the face behind it, hiding any and all details from view. If not for the angle of his head, Mira wouldn’t even have known where he was looking.
She couldn’t overpower him physically. He had a demon’s strength and no amount of struggling was going to outmuscle him. That left her with two options. She could either try to take his heartstone or she could use the one she already had. It was nearby, mere feet from her, and Alyr had told her that physical contact wasn’t needed.
It was harder without it, but Mira didn’t trust that she could find the attacker’s heartstone in time. She reached out to hers, felt its own pulse sync to her heartbeat, and funneled a gale force blast of wind directly into his chest. He was ripped away from her to slam into the far wall, where he landed on his feet and immediately sprang back toward her.
She took her first deep breath and lashed out again. Silent wind roared through the room, hurling small objects around and pinning her attacker against the wall. He struggled, even managed to resist the small tornado that was buffeting the room enough to pull his torso away from the stone, but in the end, the wind was too powerful.
It was unbelievably difficult to maintain. Mira had done it before, held the wind for about thirty seconds with the heartstone in her hand. Without it, she thought she might have a few seconds at most left. She used that time to scoop the heartstone up from the cupboards where it sat and, with a stronger tactile connection, renewed her winds.
It was a losing game though. She wasn’t hurting her attacker, just delaying him. She needed to get away, to get help. There still wasn’t any noise in the room, and it should have been deafening just from the wind alone, never mind all the little things flying around smashing into the walls and each other.
Mira slipped past the man, who made a clumsy grab for her. She wasn’t affected by her own winds like he was though, and it was easy to dodge it. As soon as she was in the hall, sound returned, and she immediately started screaming for help.
The attacker was on her within moments of her strength giving out, and the world went silent again as a new bubble unfolded around them. Mira blew him backwards with another stream of wind, but it was weak. He just stood up and stalked forward. A blade appeared in either hand, the metal painted matte black.
Mira shot more blasts of air at him and turned to run. Whether because she had weakened herself or through plain old poor aim, she didn’t make it ten feet before the attacker caught up to her. One hand closed on her hair and jerked her head back. She saw a knife come up out of her peripheral vision and gasped.
Then Maluk was there, hurtling past her like a cannon. By the time Mira turned around, he’d already carried the attacker out the other side of the distortion bubble. The fight was brief, with Maluk the clear winner. He was simply too fast, too agile, for his opponent to land a hit, and he matched the other demon’s strength easily.
Maluk had him pinned on the ground when Alyr arrived. Leaning down, the youthful-faced demon pulled the mask off and frowned. “Lortas?” he asked, clearly surprised. “What are you doing?”
Mira recognized him. It was one of the demons she’d seen in the compound, a member of the Order. Someone within their organization had just tried to kill her.